Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for Sunday 24th December 2023 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

We have now lit the final advent candle, and I believe we can say “we are now enlightened!”

This final candle is the one for Mary.

So who can remember the meaning of the first candle?

First candle for the Patriarchs – people like Abraham who heard the call of God and followed him, not knowing where God would lead them or what God might have in store. Remember that Abraham was basically an Iraqi pagan who suddenly encountered a new, mysterious God, who called to him. And Abraham said yes.

And there were his sons and grandsons: Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and they all gained a bit more understanding, but ended up in slavery in Egypt. Then God raised up Moses, a great prophet to lead his people to a new life, to be God’s people, God’s ambassadors, God’s advertisements to the world.

And so when the rest of the world was glorifying in war and lust and power, God’s people were to be controlled, to prevent extremes of wealth, and to make sure God’s people were not enslaved to each other. They COULD HAVE BEEN really something different in that ancient world!

But they were not. It was easier to follow the law of man than the laws of God. And so we have a large chunk of the Old Testament made up of…

Who remembers the second candle?

The Prophets, the second candle! People like Samuel, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – prophets who did little more than just point out the details of the contract. God would care for Israel if Israel acted like God’s possession, like God’s agent. But they saw Israel was misbehaving, and so they simply warned Israel that God would not tolerate that for too long.

Yet God also had a solution for the big problem – because even when we tried to do right, we messed up. And so…who remembers the third candle?

John the Baptist came (the third candle) as the final great Prophet, pointing not to Israel as the solution, but to one God would give to be the lamb that would take away the sins of the world.

And so we had the final candle today, when we remember Mary. She must have been terrified. That whole history I’ve just recounted, of all of the Patriarchs, all of the sin of the people, all of the Prophets warning but pointing to some distant solution, and then in her own time, the expectancy that God was going to do something…

I remember seeing a gathering of people who were rescued from a concentration camp 30 years previously, and in the middle was a man who had helped save them. Only he did not know all these were all the people he had helped save. And then at the key moment, they all turned to him and looked at that one man in the middle, and the spotlight swung to point at him, and he realised the whole event had been about him!

Just like Mary! A little girl in a patriarchal society, excited by the thought of “who might God send to rescue us?”, and then the spotlights swung, and shone on her!

The spotlight was in the form of Gabriel, a chief angel, bringing the news to Mary that, although she was in a backwater town, in backwater Galilee, she was in fact in the centre of the universe, for God was birthing within her.

There are two points I want to highlight here: the first is the connection with David, and the second is the Holy Spirit’s presence.

First the connection with David. David was Israel’s greatest King, the little runt of the litter who was physically overshadowed by the tall, strong King Saul. But while men looked at Saul’s impressive outer appearance, God looked at the heart. And David, as fallible as he was – and let’s emphasise he was ill-disciplined, lustful, deceitful and violent – David had at least a desire to try and do the right thing.

Mary too was just ordinary, but it’s ordinary people trying with a good, honest heart, with integrity and humility, that God loves to use. If you want one of the major characteristics to try and pursue of a Godly person, I think humility is one of them.

But God promised Israel that one day he would send a new sort of David, someone God would raise up from David’s line to establish the rule of God forever.

So what do we see in the gospel? Joseph is specifically mentioned as being of the House of David, and Jesus is specifically mentioned as being given the throne of David. Humanly speaking, Jesus is adopted into the family line of David by Joseph and Mary, but divinely speaking, the ancestors of David are adopted into God’s lineage!

Indeed, does the story of Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and Mary (mother of Jesus) sound a little familiar? Elizabeth a barren woman, praying. Visits and ministry in the Temple. Angel visitors. It’s all very Old Testament! Luke is giving us images of Abraham and Sarah, and the birth of the prophet Samuel, all wrapped up together to highlight that God is at work!

So ordinary, young Mary suddenly found herself in God’s favour and story: just as Samuel heralded the coming of King David, so Elizabeth and John the Baptist herald the coming of the new David!

And then there is the work of the Holy Spirit, for we are told the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, a virgin, and that the child birthed would be Holy. So we must ask, what does that mean? What is “holy”? We can use some other words to help capture it: the child Jesus, is unique.

There is none other like this child. Jesus is unique.

Holiness is also a fire: you cannot get too close to holy, because it turns things around it into the same thing that it is. You get too close to fire, you start to burn!

When the presence of God rested in Israel, the priests had to behave and control access because that presence was holy: a fire, a heat, a power that consumed things that were not perfect.

And yet the great miracle here is that this most powerful nuclear reactor was born of an ordinary girl who God chose, and who was cradled in her arms, and who was raised in an ordinary, not-rich, humble family. And that destructive holiness of God was withheld and contained in flesh, and it submitted to the creatures around it, and let itself be loved and neglected by the fallen and faulty humans in its life. Absolutely humbling himself, again.

So where does that leave us? We are surely to join in with Mary and say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. She knew she was just an ordinary person, that she had no special claims. Her husband was in the line of David, but she was just Mary, sharing the same name a 20% of the rest of the women in Israel at that time.

She was not proud, not rich. But they had family ties. They went to the Temple. They did try to make the offerings required. They did try to obey the Lord in all the ways they knew how. They kept in touch with relatives, they supported each other, they wanted to be right before God.

And it was these ordinary characteristics of piety and humility that God chose. He did not choose the palace, the proud king. He did not choose the rich and wealthy, busy with their new TVs and Playstations. He did not choose the selfish individual seeking to show the world how great they are through growing their career and taking positions of power.

He came to an ordinary family, seeking to honour God with the little they had, seeking to manage and love all those complex relationships of relatives, family, and friends.

So my message is simple: choose humility. And yes, that’s a constant battle. Because as soon as you think you’ve become humble, you will start to feel proud!

But keep the lifelong battle going. Because that is when we become useful to the Lord, and we can say with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.

That is real humility: I don’t matter, just let it be with me according to your word O Lord.

So if you want, join me now as we pray:

Father God, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; wherever you lead, whatever you give or take, Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.